The Roman Empire was a magpie; borrowing foods (lentils from Egypt), religion (Mithra from Persia) and language from those they subsumed into their boundaries. A word that they borrowed from the Gauls, karros, meaning a wagon or cart was Latinised into carrus to refer to a Gallic wagon. Words like car, carriage, cargo and carry have clear origins here, but what about caricature? Strangely enough this also originates from carrus, and it’s original meaning was to “load the cart”, in other words to exaggerate or over-emphasise.
It came to refer to a drawing, painting, or silhouette which gave greater prominence to the features of an individual which were already notable; Prince Charles is forever portrayed with huge ears, for his sister Anne it is her teeth. Like the word, the practice can be traced back to Roman times; amongst the proliferation of graffiti in Pompeii can be seen a local politician whose bald head and long drooping nose are clearly the object of ridicule.
Caricaturing continues to be popular – the centres of many tourist cities will have artists who offer to portray passers by in charcoal or chalks with either a measure of realism or a degree of exaggeration. Their pitches are normally decorated with caricatures of celebrities that are demonstrations of their art.
As the art form that was initially believed to be truly representative (the camera never lies) it is perhaps not surprising that photo caricatures haven’t become commonplace. That’s not to say that it can’t be done – any photographer with a little knowledge of the properties of a wide angle lens would see the possibilities this might have for exaggerating the nasal features in a portrait for example.
The ability to alter negatives goes back to the 19th Century, and in this digital age we are familiar with the abilities of photoshop and other digital editing software. The same tools that notoriously made Kate Winslet‘s legs slimmer on the cover of GQ could be used to exaggerate other features. I suspect many a magazine cover has resorted to a digital boob job from time to time.
So if it’s possible to create photographic caricatures, why don’t we see them?
For me the answer is that we are so used to the “truth” that a photographic represents that as soon as you distort it you lose that truth and enter the world of cartoon. The caricaturist who draws is creating the whole, they can imagine the the image in its entirety and create something with a sense of proportion (however imbalanced). If I were to take a photograph and elongate the the nose, I then potentially have to adjust all of the other features to make it look right. Attempts to do this have concentrated on creating digital measurements of key features and playing with equations that keep the numbers in balance. At that point though we’re no longer talking about an artistic talent.
My subject for today is another John, and I’m sure he’ll be pleased to know that I’m not going to give him enormous ears or a tiny head . However before I met John another potential subject turned me down because “I’m not really even supposed to be in this town!”. Perhaps if I’d offered a little digital manipulation…